Futurama, The Prototype of the American Highway-City

Norman Bel Geddes
New York, USA
40°44′45″N 73°50′41″W

The Futurama project is an American utopia promising an urban future transformed by technical progress. This experience marks the advent of the American automotive civilization that transformed the country’s cities and territories.

The growing influence of the U.S. automotive industry

The evolution of American cities in the 20th century was largely shaped by the growing importance of the automobile. The large industrial groups like General Motors that shaped the American economy had an undeniably important influence on the American landscape. Beginning with the development of the Ford T in 1908, mass production developed a founding doctrine that led to the creation of an extremely powerful auto-industrial complex. In 1907, 25,000 cars left the American factories, 7 years later 485,000 of which 250,000 Ford T were produced. The 1920s saw the creation of Chrysler, which, together with General Motors and Ford, formed the Big Three in the United States. Their economic power continues to grow and their presence in the cities forces the public authorities to transform the urban space. In addition, alternative modes of transport such as the tramway were slowly suppressed to make way for the automobile. At the initiative of the CEO of General Motors, a joint holding company created in 1940 by major manufacturers, bought out the tramway services to marginalize them. The consequence will be the omnipresence of the car in cities and American culture.

The automobile is now essential and reformed the urban layout of the country. Residential suburbs are favored while the city center, connected by major highways, is dedicated to work and commerce. This omnipresence of the automobile has allowed the urban fabric to spread out without restrictions of proximity and has also favored the construction of highways throughout the country, replacing other forms of transportation such as trains. Finally the car is the only mode of transportation for which American cities have adapted. 

A chart from General Motors for a 20th century alchemy of starting with iron, limestone and coal and at the end creating a car (1939).

Chicago World's Fair, the staging of industrial progress

In 1933 the Chicago World’s Fair was organized to celebrate the “century of progress” known since the creation of the city. Shortly after the Great Depression, the goal was to look to the future by showcasing the industrial advances of the time. The buildings follow the principles of a new modernist architecture and the automotive groups are present as worthy representatives of technological innovation. The motto predicts everything that the American economic model develops: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts”. The General Motors building is built by Albert Khan, where a production line is installed and strongly  noticed.

General Motors Building Chicago Albert Kahn
General Motors Building Chicago Albert Kahn
An exhibition to forecast the world of tomorrow

Based on this success, General Motors wishes to repeat the experience 6 years later at the New York World’s Fair. Despite the beginning of the war in Europe, it is one of the biggest world’s fair of all times and its theme is very ironically (or prophetically) turned on the world of tomorrow. Norman Bel Geddes submits his Futurama project to General Motors and they decide to abandon all other proposals to sponsor his conception of the future. The Futurama exhibition immediately captures the interest of the public and is the number-one hit show. Futurama presents a model of what the city of the future could be like in 20 years time (i.e. 1959-1960). At that time, imagining the city of the future implied taking into account the growing place of the automobile in the urban space. Norman Bel Geddes presents an American utopia on a gigantic 0.40 hectare animated model. 500,000 buildings, a million trees of 13 different species, 50,000 cars populate a highway-city where the backbone is a proteiform highway capable of meeting the challenge of decongesting urban space. The highway model foresees and stages the automobile development of the next few years by promoting the unconditional use of the car in American cities. In his book Magic Motorways Geddes looks back on this experience:

Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country—across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns—never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed, and economy.

Plan the highway in the city and in the country

In this prototype, 4 major ideas are developed to meet the ambition of the project. First, each section of road was designed to receive greater capacity of traffic. Second, traffic moving in one direction could be isolated from traffic moving in any other. Third, segregating traffic by subdividing towns and cities into certain units restricted traffic and allowed pedestrians to predominate. And fourth, traffic control included maximum and minimum speeds. Through this, the exhibition was designed to inspire greater public enthusiasm and support for the constructive work and planning of streets and highways. In fact, it is difficult to imagine this today, but at the time the road network outside of American cities was not well developed. In 1956, under Eisenhower’s impetus, the construction of Interstate highways, linking the country’s largest cities, began. This multiplication of highways confirms the reign of the automobile. Private vehicles make up a vast majority and all the main public amenities concern the roads

A National Motorway Plan

The Futurama exhibition was an opportunity to stage an urban revolution but also a new design of the American landscape. By putting the car at the center of everyday life, by demonstrating its technological and practical superiority over all other means of transportation, it strongly influenced Americans who came to the exhibition to accept future developments. The marketing aspect of the exhibition is undeniable, the model is animated, the multi-lane highways are automatic, and 10,000 remotely controlled cars travel on a 14-lane interstate highway. The spectators are placed on a conveyor belt in height, following a sinuous course in the model that is supposed to reproduce a low altitude aerial flight. What seduces the public is also thatthe futuristic project seems feasible, promises an enviable technological future and responds to the problems that already existed at the time. Various gadgets accompany power plants and farms for genetically modified food. It is the staging of an American utopia fueled by technical progress, a reform of the society and the future of American automotive civilization.

Norman Bel Geddes Futurama
Norman Bel Geddes Motorway Plan

Entrance to general motor worlds fair exhibition

Norman Bel Geddes Futurama

Pedestrians and motorcars will continue on their way without interference

Street intersection

Parking and unloading will be removed from the street to within the building area

Express boulevards are the main arteries for through city traffic

Open spaces in city will provide healthier living

A typical express boulevard intersection and feeders

Control bridge, future motorway style

The city of tomorrow has improved its shipping facilities

Feeder lanes to the motorway

Airport tomorrow

Air view to new horizons

Model farm will seek locations adjacent to the motorways for quicker distribution

Graceful bridges of high speed route crosse valleys and lower speed lanes

The approach to the city by air

A model community with feeders to the motorway

Planned midwest metropolis 20 years from now

Motorway routes separate in the mountain foothills to maintain their economical speed

The national motorway crosses a large lake

The crossing point of two future motorways

Local roads feed into the motorway

The national motorway crosses the great divide without speed reduction

A new plan for future development

Motorways will uncover more of natures riches

Convenient emergency stations are located along the motorway

On top of the world

Where motorways from opposite directions join

Future bridge plaza will eliminate bottleneck approaches

Three speeds three routes

Motorways for increased distribution

Multi-deck motorways could use the top of a great power dam

This film was put together by General Motors to trumpet their “Highways and Horizons” exhibit (which included the Futurama) at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. It opens in b&w, as a wistful, utopian narrator explains how Americans are always striving for “new horizons,” and “new ways of doing things.”

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